Midfielder on nearly leaving Sunderland and what squad learned from Chris Coleman’s 10-game review

George Honeyman. Picture by Frank Reid
George Honeyman. Picture by Frank Reid
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“I don’t class myself as anything like a young player any more!

“We do young v old boxes, and I am on the cusp of going into the old box at the moment!

“I see myself as one of the experienced campaigners now,” says Sunderland’s George Honeyman, only partly tongue in cheek.

On the opening night of the season, it had been a surprise when Simon Grayson handed him a starting berth as the right winger in a 4-4-2 formation.

Now, he has played more minutes than any other Sunderland player in the Championship this term, with only Lewis Grabban and Aiden McGeady scoring more goals.

This time last year, his contract was coming to an end and Honeyman was having to give serious thought to the idea that he could be searching for a new club.

It seems a distant memory now, with the 23-year-old revelling in the challenge of leading Sunderland towards safety.

“If I hadn’t thought [about leaving] then I wouldn’t have the right desire to be a footballer,” said Honeyman.

“I was 21, 22, made my debut at 19, but that was just a couple of minutes and then I was out the picture.

“It is hard to stay in the picture with so many different managers as a young lad.

“I would have been stupid if I hadn’t had contingency plans in place, but I never gave up believing I was good enough to help Sunderland.

“The hard work has paid off in the end.

“I have been very lucky. The position is not where I want to see the club, but personally, because of the lack of players and injuries, it has helped me play a lot of games.

“If someone told me a year ago I would have played this much, I’d have laughed.

“I would love the club to be doing better, but to be playing as often as I am, I am delighted because I have been striving for this almost all my life.”

Former Black Cats boss Grayson was a big fan of Honeyman’s drive and energy and, to the midfielder’s relief, it has been the same under Chris Coleman.

He scored a crucial goal in Coleman’s first win over Burton Albion, back in November, the Black Cats boss interrupting his post-match press duties for a hearty pat on the head in a clear sign of his admiration.

Honeyman is loving life under the new boss and says that a review of the manager’s opening 10 games, held last week, shows key signs of improvement.

“We have had a couple of bad afternoons, but, if you look at it as a whole, we are in our best part of the season,” he said.

“I think our game against Hull (in last weekend’s vital 1-0 win) was arguably our best performance of the season.

“Keeping five clean sheets in 11 games is massive, considering we didn’t have any clean sheets before that.

“The manager held a meeting last week and showed us lots of stats, and you could there is a definite improvement.

“It’s things like that that show us we are on the right track, and starting to progress up the league.”

The meeting also showed that the next step to be made is improving the team’s attacking output.

Honeyman hopes to retain his favoured position behind the strikers and help deliver more goals in the push for safety, which will continue at fellow strugglers Birmingham City on Tuesday night.

“Since the manager came in, he has focused a lot on the defence, and he has brought in a new formation,” he said.

“I think the next step is to get up the pitch better, keep the ball better in the opposition’s half.

“I think we did that better on Saturday and we will have had quite a bit of training time between that match and the next one, so hopefully we will be even better when we go to Birmingham.

“I always put big pressure on myself to score goals.

“I haven’t been playing as far forward as I was earlier in season.

“If I am playing the position I was at the weekend, then my aim is for 10. I am on four at the moment.

“If I have a good second half to the season, I can achieve that if I play that far forward.

“I am fairly confident that I can get 10.”

That more advanced role suits home-grown Honeyman.

“It was really nice to play futher up, particularly when you have two in front of you, in Joel and Maja, and runners, because it makes your job much easier if you are looking for a pass,” he added.

“I’ve played in a lot of positions this year, but I like to think that that is another string to my bow – it’s probably why I have played so many games, because they can always fit me in if someone is missing or suspended.

“Obviously I have got my preferred positions, but, as long as I am out there, I’m happy.”